Lockdown Diaries: The comfort of sickness by Saikat Majumdar
One of the Instagram accounts I follow is professorsashoka, “Stuff Ashoka Professors say”, a student-run, tongue-in-cheek project that archives quotable quotes Ashoka University professors have been caught mouthing in class, thankfully without calling out the speaker. Over the last few weeks, these were some of the things posted by the account:
“So, I’m going to stop talking now and have a smoke, because you guys can’t see me, ha-ha!”
“I’m having FOMO, not seeing you all in person for so long!”
“I would like to assure everyone that this is really a glass of water. I’m not silently having a gin and tonic or vodka at home.”
Apparently, these are some of the things professors say in class when the university Zooms online. Of all the good stuff that wither under a virus-induced lockdown – social parties, political rallies, religious gatherings – one of the first to go, sadly, is the university campus. Campuses, as you know, tend to gather a good many people inside a rather limited space, and sometimes those people tend to violate physical distancing rules in rather unexpected ways.
There is college now, your desk a digital Zoom square between exciting trips to Los Living Room and Puerto Backyard. I go and put on a decent shirt but don’t bother to step out of my pajamas – I’m not going to walk around the classroom as I do when I’m real, un-virtual, so who cares what’s down there? Some of the students turn off their video screens, pleading poor bandwidth or camera but who knows what they do after their Zoom boxes have stroked the tick of attendance, if they are in the room at all?
Of course, it is not the same, and it’s hard for the students and the professors alike. But in a world where thousands of migrant labourers are out of jobs and shelters and daily wage earners are on the brink of starvation, it is startling, almost a shock, to think of the professions where quotidian labour and sustenance can continue, sometimes shifted to a different plane, sharply impoverished but oddly enriched by that very poverty.
I wake up early in the morning, grope in the dark for my iPad to check the news of sickness and death; the reality of the physical newspaper is now a gaping hole. On days I don’t have classes I pound away at the new book, the light at the end of the first draft comes sooner than normal life could have brought it. I write while walking, perching the laptop waist-high on a cabinet and pacing in between sentences, my pace urgent as that’s all the travelling I do throughout the day. Ironically, it is a campus novel that I write when most campuses worldwide have slid into the digital screen. In Wordsworthian footsteps, I’ve said often that I can only write about the absent, never the present, banking on memory as my erratic editor. About Calcutta while sitting in California or about New Jersey while in Delhi. The lockdown has turned most of the world into a giant absence, merely allowing for the remembered and the virtual. It is the sharpest of ironies that this campus novel comes to a close while campuses have closed the world over.
The two primary schoolers sleep till eleven, they have forgotten what preparing for school feels like. Once in a while, the six-year old wakes up at nine, the new crack of dawn, runs in bouncing a ball, and insists I play with him. Sometimes I do, sometimes I shout warning him not to hurt himself, terrified that a doctor for a trip-and-fall injury might be an absurd luxury now, an Uber hard to get. Quickly, I feel guilty, he’s a good kid who returns to drawing Hulk and Spiderman. But there is always fear. Still with childhood asthma, he has a set of lungs particularly vulnerable to viruses that attack the respiratory system.
His sister wakes at noon. Drearily, they are settling into the new routine. A flash of worry shoots through – what will waking at 6:30 feel like, going to school again? Will that reality, when it returns (we pray), feel fictional, like being inside a movie?
They sit and eat breakfast till 1pm. Time has lost urgency, hours have become porous, they flow into each other throughout the day.
Every other day I trade the cross-trainer for the jhadu and the mop. We’ve sent our cleaning lady home with a month’s salary settled in advanced, asking her to check back when fellow humans are safe again. My partner soaps and washes the grocery in the bathroom; now we clean cabinets, countertops and cauliflowers. Our cook, a kind woman who lives with us, away from her own family, says laughingly that the bananas and the pineapples have been going mushy because didi has been washing and rinsing them. We remember we’re lucky to eat bananas and pineapples, fresh or mushy, firm or soft.
Claiming a week’s vacation, our driver elopes with his new girlfriend just before the lockdown. His angry wife calls to tell us that he’s still in his native village and not coming back. Trapped between annoyance and concern, we wonder: what is it like, love in the time of corona?
At the end of the day, books become books again – as Sumana Roy said here in a previous lockdown column, they are books, not texts, as when you read them without a goal, for a class, now with a lot of “snail time” on us. Lots and lots of books, including books in Bangla, a language to which I always return when I’m sick, tired, in need of comfort. I’m sick all the time now, a sickness that sways between pain and pleasure, fear and sadness, and a sudden spurt of joy at the quiet green outside, the unexpected blue of the sky.
Saikat Majumdar’s books include the novels The Scent of God and The Firebird, and the nonfiction, College: Pathways of Possibility.